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The Grind: How a wounded Marine fell in love with Dirty Kanza

I started cycling after getting shot by a sniper in Afghanistan. Dirty Kanza's challenge lured me in, and the family bonding has kept me coming back.

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Editor’s note from Ben Delaney: After my column last week on feed zones in gravel races, I received the following from Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Kutilek, who our photographer Brad Kaminski had captured in the image above that we ran with the column. We didn’t know him or his story; we just liked the photo, as it encapsulates family teamwork so well. Turns out, Kutilek has quite the story. Instead of trying to rewrite it, I decided it was better to just let him tell it in his own words. Enjoy.  

I’m part of the 98 percent of the gravel cycling community – the non-pros. I have a full-time job, a full-time family of four girls and a wife, and countless competing priorities of life which include crushing myself in the saddle for 10-12 hours a week (often way before sunrise) and endless bike and kit prep to make sure I am at my peak for the ever expanding gravel racing season.

I started cycling in the summer of 2011 to rehabilitate from my eleventh surgery after getting shot by a sniper in Afghanistan in March of 2010. Growing up in Wichita, Kansas – a mere 90 minutes from the gravel epicenter of Emporia – I naturally wanted to give Dirty Kanza 200 a go when I first heard about it. So starting in 2014 I’ve completed five consecutive DK200’s and last year’s DKXL. That is over 1,140 consecutive miles in, around, over, and down God’s amazing Kansas Flinthills.

While like most cyclist I fancy myself a pro, I am average at best. On countless occasions the past eight years, during long winter months of training and challenging races I’ve asked myself why in the world do I do this? Why subject myself to so much physical and mental punishment and ridiculous monetary and time cost? I mean that $375 a night room at the Sleep-In Emporia is enough to stop any sane person from competing in DK twice. Especially when I have literally zero chance at winning – anything – ever. The answer is simple; the Pit Stops.

Although I grew up in Wichita, I moved away to College in South Carolina on my 18th birthday and have served in the Marine Corps now for the past 19 years. Being away from mom, dad, brothers and sisters for a majority of the past 22 years has been tough. Being away from my wife Andrea and four beautiful girls through five deployments overseas is even tougher. So starting in 2014, at my very first DK200, we made a commitment to make Pit Stops the most efficient, fluid and enjoyable family and friend experience possible.

My older brother Nathanael (kneeling with towel in pocket lubing my chain) has served as my one and only NASCAR Dirty Kanza Crew Chief for every race. Like me, he is just an average hard-working blue collar American, who runs a parts department at a Chevrolet dealership in a very small rural Kansas town. He knows how much these races mean to me and exactly what I need and how to provide it. Every year we start the planning months in advance, we review last year’s notes, go over what worked and what didn’t, go over contingency plans.

When race week arrives we check all the gear, watch the weather with an informed eye and rehearse every stop. A testament to his attention to detail is visible in the photo. Notice the pre-staged spare wheels, pump, water jugs, tool bag, assortment of food on the table etc. May the Lord help the person that messes with my brother when he is supporting me before, during or after a pit-stop. His wife Lori (filling my rear pockets with food in the photo) is a key member of the crew with her designated responsibilities, one of which is keeping my brother in-line so he doesn’t explode! Not an easy task.

Accompanying my brother in the initial years – before he jumped into cycling himself – was retired Marine Carl Martinez. (In this photo is my great friend Matt Brown – another multi-year member of my crew.) After two years of supporting me Carl saw how awesome cycling was and decided to compete in his first DK200 in 2015.

My parents Doug (unseen in photo due to being at the entrance of the pits telling me where to go) and Naomi (hand visible to the right recording the stop for future analysis) from another small Kansas town have housed, fed and drove me to and from Emporia for six straight years. For his own sanity my brother keeps their in-race responsibilities to a minimum, but they are always there and always extremely supportive (mom almost always on the verge of tears) no matter what mental or physical condition I am in. Or what snappy things I say when I pull up to the stop. My sister and her girls round out the crew as spectators and videographers.

Kutilek motors across Kansas.

Most important of all my is beautiful wife Andrea (hidden behind me putting the bottles in the cages) and my four girls (Allie taking photos, Emma on the tailgate – her set up job complete and now in overwatch and Lilly handing me my Oakley Sunglasses. Tip: never wear the good sunglasses during the first leg of DK. They will get destroyed from the mud of 1,000 riders) have supported me all along the way. Having them on my pit-crew is a real world teaching moment on how to commit to something, conduct proper detailed planning, put in months of hard work, overcome adversity and execute when it matters. Irreplaceable life lessons on no matter how small or seemingly insignificant the task, (like handing Daddy his clean Oakley sunglasses), the importance of knowing your role and how to contribute to the team under significant pressure. Know your job. Practice it. Do it well. Create memories as a family. Have fun.

All of my girls are into sports and cycling – no doubt because of watching and helping Daddy throughout 1,130 miles of Dirty Kanza. On my long winter training rides I dream about the day when I will serve as my girls’ domestique, crushing myself and shepherding them thru the DK200 with my brother, parents and wife manning the pit-stops with precision and intensity. In fact, as the dream plays out in my mind, we will make it a family team effort and one of my girls will win DK one day. It will happen – count on it. It’ll be my contribution to getting more girls on bikes.

So that is it. The key to a successful pit stop and successful gravel race… is family. There is nothing like grinding out a leg knowing that family will be there waiting. Make every pit-stop a multi-generational experience with loved ones that you’ll talk about for weeks, months and years to come. I look forward to Dirty Kanza every year because of the Flinthills, the countless friends I’ve made across the nation in the gravel community, and the physical and mental challenge of finishing such a tough race. But most of all, I cherish the small portion of time each year where I can visit nearly my entire family, spend life with them and create lasting memories 60-90 seconds at a time in the middle of small town Kansas that will last forever. Thank you Dirty Kanza for the opportunity.

Kutilek and his family pit crew.